Free agency has been mostly rumors for the New York Yankees over the past few weeks. Still, things are bound to ramp up, especially on the pitching front, with Yoshinobu Yamamoto being posted this past Tuesday morning.
General manager Brian Cashman already indicated that he needs two outfielders and another starting pitcher. While it’s no secret that Yamamoto is at the top of their wish list, they need to supplement centerfield with Jasson Dominguez undergoing Tommy John surgery and expected to miss the majority of the 2024 season.
The Yankees can’t depend on Dominguez to make a return and fill the starting spot immediately, given he only played eight games at the MLB level before the injury.
The Yankees Have 2 Solid Centerfield Options
With that being said, there are two primary options for Cashman on the open market: Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier and Korean prospect Jung-hoo Lee.
Kiermaier seems to be a perfect fit for the Yankees, a team that prefers to have a great defensive player in centerfield but also a lefty bat with a bit of pop.
At 33 years old, Kiermaier is coming off a one-year, $9 million deal with Toronto. Kiermaier played 129 games, hitting .265 with a .322 OBP, .419 slugging rate, including eight homers, 36 RBIs, and 14 stolen bases. He was slightly above average with a 104 wRC+ and collected 2.2 WAR.
The Yankees may want to offer Kiermaier a one-year deal at around $10 million with a club option for the 2025 season, allowing him to keep his services if he proves to be a consistent contributor.
However, what he lacks offensively, he makes up for with his glove. This past season, Kiermaier played 981.1 innings, hosting a .989 fielding percentage with 18 defensive runs saved and 13 outs above average. He’s one of the best defensive outfielders in the game — the Yankees would essentially be getting a lefty version of Harrison Bader with better offense.
The concerns with Kiermaier are evident, though. He struggled with runners in scoring position last season, hitting .222 with a .302 OBP. He’s a bottom-half-of-the-order hitter, enjoying 333 plate appearances batting ninth last year for Toronto, where he saw the majority of his action.
However, he ranks in the 87th percentile in sprint speed and does have some quality athleticism. The fact that he pulls the ball to right field suggests that he may be able to capitalize on the short right porch in Yankee Stadium.
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Jung-hoo Lee is a High-Risk, High-Reward Option
Moving onto Jung-hoo Lee, a 25-year-old Korean star who has elite plate discipline. There are concerns that Lee will struggle against high-velocity pitches at the MLB level, but he’s been working diligently to prepare for that challenge. Having played 86 games last year, Lee hit .318 with a .406 OBP, .455 slugging rate, including six homers and 45 RBIs with a 5.9% strikeout rate and 139 wRC+.
However, his 2022 metrics are impressive, hitting .349 with a .421 OBP, .575 slugging rate, including 23 homers and 113 RBIs. Aside from his offensive qualities, Lee is an elite defensive player, having won multiple gold gloves in the KBO.
Of course, the transition from Korean baseball to the majors is significant, and the Yankees would have to expect a few bumps in the road. He may be worth a long-term risk, given his athletic profile, quality defense, and elite discipline in the batter’s box. Lee could be a cornerstone as a primary lead-off man in the future, and he shouldn’t cost a significant amount.
Cashman has a few difficult challenges ahead this off-season, but the expectation is that the Yankees will be aggressive and spend big in a number of spots. Ideally, they walk away with Yamamoto and trade for Juan Soto, but that is easier said than done.